There is little doubt AJ Allmendinger has faced adversity throughout his NASCAR career. That is why last weekend’s victory at Watkins Glen International, the first of his career, was so special to the Las Gatos, Calif., native.
Entering the sport from the open-wheel ranks as a rookie in 2007, Allmendinger struggled right off the bat. Driving for the now-defunct Red Bull Racing, Allmendinger only made 17 of the 36 races that year, failing to qualify for 19 events.
Things did not get much better in Allmendinger’s sophomore season in 2008. In his second season with Red Bull Racing, he failed to qualify for the first three races of the season, including the season-opening Daytona 500.
As a result, team officials decided to put veteran Mike Skinner in the car for five races to help the team, and Allmendinger, get up to speed. The move appeared to work, as when Allmendinger climbed back behind the wheel of the car he qualified for the rest of the races that season, despite moving to Michael Waltrip Racing for one race and finishing the year with Gillett Evernham Motorsports.
Over the next few years, Allmendinger found his rhythm and improved behind the wheel, eventually landing a ride with one of the top teams in the sport, Team Penske.
Then, it nearly all came to an end. Just prior to the start of the July race at Daytona International Speedway in 2012, it was announced Allmendinger had violated NASCAR’s Substance Abuse Policy and was suspended from the sport.
Taking part in NASCAR Road to Recovery program, Allmendinger eventually found his way back behind the wheel of a Sprint Cup car for the October Charlotte race, this time with James Finch’s Phoenix Racing.
Last season, Allmendinger split his schedule between Phoenix Racing and JTG Daugherty Racing in the Sprint Cup Series. In addition, Allmendinger made his return to Team Penske in the NASCAR Nationwide Series, scoring wins in his only two starts at Elkhart Lake and Mid-Ohio.
I wanted to sleep in Victory Lane, but they told me I had to get back to the plane so everybody could fly out. I was willing to sleep right there. I wanted to wake up with confetti stuck to my face. They said that wasn’t allowed.
Returning to a full-time ride this year with JTG Daugherty Racing, Allmendinger has shown he is dedicated to moving forward and not letting his past dictate his future.
"I mean, I knew the mistake I made and I learned from it," Allmendinger said Friday at Michigan International Speedway. "NASCAR laid out a plan to get back and I wasn’t going to fight it.
"More importantly what it did for me is it gave me time away from racing, which I had never had, to just figure out if I even wanted to race anymore and then realize that at that point racing wasn’t making me happy anyway, so what was it? What did I have to do to just be happier out of the race car? Because in the end at some point we are not going to have a race car whether it’s next week, a year, 10 years, hopefully it is 10-15 years, but at some point there will be no more race car.
"For the first time I had to look at that and that is really where I was," he continued. "The whole time really wasn’t trying to get back to NASCAR I was going to do whatever it took at that point, but everything else was just trying to get myself better. I wouldn’t change anything about it. I’m way better off now than I’ve ever been. Honestly without that probably wouldn’t of had to make those changes or at least dealt with it. It’s a lot better."
The time to reflect and make personal changes paid off last weekend at Watkins Glen International when Allmendinger finally made his way back to the top.
"I wanted to sleep in Victory Lane, but they told me I had to get back to the plane so everybody could fly out," he said. "I was willing to sleep right there. I wanted to wake up with confetti stuck to my face. They said that wasn’t allowed."
More so than that, Allmendinger said the best part of scoring the win was enjoying it with his family and his single-car team that has roughly 30 employees, including the front office.
"Having my parents there was so special to be able to share that with them in Victory Lane," he said. "I’ve put so much pressure on myself whether it’s this year or the last few years to go out there and try to be at my best. And I felt like at times if I didn’t win it was a negative on me because that is what my life has been all about — winning and doing that. To be able to this year kind of look at it differently, have a different perspective, but to be able to say as a whole as a race team that we are winners in the Sprint Cup Series, which is hard to do.
"That has probably been the most enjoyment thing: Waking up each day knowing that I don’t have to have you guys (in the media) ask me when I’m going to win again. Or, ‘Are you going to be the next first-time winner (of 2014)?’ I don’t have to do that anymore. I’m good with that now."
He’s good with that and a whole lot more.
VIDEO: A Race Hub review of AJ Allmendinger’s winning weekend at Watkins Glen